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'48 Tucker Collectors Keep the Dream Alive

July 26, 1988|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

Tucker, the man and his dream, are long dead. But many of his 1948 cars, the designer who built this Route 66 cruiser, some family and much of the curt history of rebel Preston Tucker survive in Southern California.

Now "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" is a movie, any Tucker that can be started has been hired for this month's California premieres and press junkets, analyses of the builder and his car have exhumed a controversy dead for 40 years, and for those considering the cars as an investment . . . well, you should have bought a Tucker yesterday.

"I had a (broker) call me from Louisiana who said he had a Tucker with only 3,000 original miles on it," said North Hollywood car auctioneer Rick Cole. "He asked me how much I thought it was worth.

"I told him about $45,000. He said that with the movie and all the publicity, he was thinking more about $250,000."

Hooray for Hollywood. But a bargain at that price?

"Only if it came with 50 yards of Malibu beachfront," Cole said.

Despite the absence of recent transactions, local owners and experts say, Tucker prices are certainly rising from a recorded sale of $35,000 nine years ago to today's projections of up to $100,000.

Among American-made collector cars, says John Tucker, 57, of Long Beach, one of three surviving sons of Preston Tucker, dad's car now ranks No. 3 in value and desirability behind Duesenberg and Cord.

All of which might seem surprising for an automobile that never raced anywhere and won zero design awards. The Tucker was powered by a modified helicopter engine and sold no better than the Keller Chief that nobody remembers. It was produced for only one year before Tucker's informal business ways collided head-on with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The car also had a nasty habit of jamming its transmission.

Yet of 50 Tucker Torpedo sedans manufactured in 1948, a surprising 45 remain and almost a quarter of those are owned by California auto museums and impassioned individuals.

Two Tuckers Apiece

Francis Ford Coppola, who directed the Paramount movie (at $22 million, it cost more than Tucker spent making his cars), is an automotive hobbyist and owns two Tuckers. George Lucas produced the film and equals Coppola in professional-personal interest. He also owns two Tuckers.

There's a fifth Tucker in Northern California, in Chico. The Blackhawk Collection at San Ramon has one. So does the J. B. Nethercutt Museum at Sylmar.

Retired aerospace tool and die maker Stephen Nicas, 69, of Escondido, owns a small stable of American collector cars. It includes a matched pair of maroon 1930 LaSalles already willed, one apiece, to his two sons; a 1928 Cadillac; a 1932 Franklin--and the 17th Tucker to roll from the plant.

Unfortunately, Nicas has been disabled by three strokes.

So tending the Tucker falls to the responsibility of his elder son, Stephen T. Nicas, 44, a San Diego County sheriff's deputy.

Currently that has meant preparing the bronze relic for its movie career, polishing it for an upcoming San Diego premiere--and straining to free a pesky, electric preselect transmission that is jammed in second.

'It's an Interesting Car'

"Dad bought it 14 years ago after it had been owned for a good deal of its life by the foreman of the King Ranch in Texas," Nicas said. "I haven't driven it enough to form a hard opinion . . . but it steers great and handles well, it seems to have enough power and poop and it's certainly an interesting car . . . as a first-time effort, not something that is the end result of many years of evolution."

Alex Tremulis, the former Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg stylist who brought design to Tucker's vision, is still alive and living in Ventura. Despite dimming eyesight, he is working on a three-wheeled motor car. At 74.

"It (Tucker Torpedo) was a real quickie of a job generated from scratch and completed in 100 days," he said. "The rear engine was my idea and that alone marks the car's moment of automotive history."

In such haste, however, there were shortcomings.

"But you have to remember that the first car of a series, like the first one of anything, will have flaws, no question about it," John Tucker said. He was a 17-year-old gofer at his father's factory when the Tucker was built. "But as they came along, the later ones were much better than the first. It was simply a matter of ironing out the kinks."

And had the car rolled out 30 years earlier, Tucker believes, it would have been a success in a receptive market place then supplied by Henry Ford, Ransom Olds and Art Chevrolet.

The Romance Disappeared

"I've always thought that dad was the last of those pioneers," he said, "but by 1948, the romance had gone out of the car business. Cars were being built for the banks, not the people. No question about it."

There also is no question that the Tucker was a 2-ton permutation from its rear engine and six tailpipes to a rotating headlight (all the better to see where you're turning, went that notion) in the center of the hood.

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